Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when we remember a pastor and great civil rights leader who led a non-violent uprising that forced the US to recognize the equal rights of African-Americans under the Constitution. Almost everyone knows about his eloquence and his commitment to non-violence in the face of aggression, but not many know about his belief in the God-given right of self-defense.
In fact, as described in a research article entitled "Martin and Malcolm on Nonviolence and Violence" Dr. King had actually applied to the State of Alabama for a handgun carry permit in 1955 (which was denied) and kept one or more guns in his home for self defense during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (He was receiving an average of 40 threatening phone calls a day, and for a time armed men were posted outside his house for protection." After his house was bombed that same year, he embraced the principle of nonviolence in total for himself.
Three nights later, Martin King’s house was bombed and people were amazed how calm he was. After finding out that his wife and baby were safe, he walked on his porch to face an angry black crowd with weapons of violence, ready to return an eye for an eye. “Don’t let us get panicky,” King said. He pleaded with them to get rid of their weapons because “we can’t solve this problem through retaliatory violence.” On the contrary, “We must meet violence with nonviolence.” Turning to the most persuasive authority in the black Christian experience, King reminded blacks of the words of Jesus: “ ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ We must love our white brothers … no matter what they do to us.”With great personal courage and devotion to the moral cause of civil rights, Dr. King chose to risk potential martyrdom and even the possibility of seeing his wife and infant daughter killed rather than to exercise his own right of self-defense, but even 4 and then 11 years later, he was still writing about the right of self-defense.
Dr. King saw three main positions on the use of arms. He wrote in the October, 1959 edition of Liberation Magazine:
Here one must be clear that there are three different views on the subject of violence. One is the approach of pure nonviolence, which cannot readily or easily attract large masses, for it requires extraordinary discipline and courage. The second is violence exercised in self-defense, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal.Dr. King rejected the third position (supported by men like Malcolm X), pointing out that while some his fellow African-Americans felt that it was the only way to bring change, it would in actuality divide proponents of civil rights, drive away most of the uninvolved, uncommitted Negro community, and ultimately it would find itself outgunned and outmatched. Later in the same article he wrote:
The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence. The third is the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously.
There is more power in socially organized masses on the march than there is in guns in the hands of a few desperate men. Our enemies would prefer to deal with a small armed group rather than with a huge, unarmed but resolute mass of people.Despite this, he was convinced of the truth of the second position, that self-defense is both moral and legal. In an article written May 4, 1966 entitled, "Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom," he was very clear that people in the civil rights marches would deliberately remain disarmed to avoid any legitimate act of self-defense triggering retaliatory violence. Any aggression against unarmed demonstrators only proved the evil of racism and gave Dr. King and his followers the high moral ground. He also wrote:
There are many people who very honestly raise the question of self-defense. This must be placed in perspective. It goes without saying that people will protect their homes. This is a right guaranteed by the Constitution and respected even in the worst areas of the South.Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just two years later on April 4, 1968. His killer, James Earl Ray was a convicted felon (4 convictions from 1949-1959) and an escaped prisoner. The Gun Control Act of 1968, signed the following October would have made it illegal for him to have a gun, but over 40 years of history of failed gun control laws have shown that it probably wouldn't have kept him from obtaining the rifle he used in the murder. This does not detract in the least from the fact that Dr. King was not only a champion of civil rights, but that he believed in the individual right to keep and bear arms and the right of self-defense.
I'll bet you'll never read that in the mainstream media...
Postscript. I should make it clear for those not familiar with my blog, or the history of Dr. King, that I am not in total agreement with him, even though I have a lot of respect for him. He was theologically and politically liberal and believed in big government. However, it is refreshing to find large pieces of common ground with someone with whom I would normally disagree. His commitment to equal rights and personal liberty are both very commendable.